NEW ORLEANS – One year after Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, washing away hundreds of communities and lives, FOXNews.com's Catherine Donaldson-Evans visits Slidell, La., to find out first hand how one town is determined to rebuild. This is the final part of her exclusive series.
SLIDELL, La. — A hot sun glinted in the blue sky as it slowly began to set over Heritage Park in Slidell, La. Local residents sprawled on the grass, listening to a brass band play.
It was a vastly different scene than the one that unfolded in this New Orleans suburb just a year ago.
That day, Aug. 29, 2005, the city of about 30,000 was battered by Hurricane Katrina, which peaked as a Category 5 storm and smashed into the Gulf Coast as a still-raging Category 3.
The violent winds and relentless rains roiled nearby Lake Pontchartrain, causing a huge storm surge that washed over the whole region and breached protective levees in New Orleans. Entire communities were devastated or wiped out completely. Close to 2,000 people died, more than 700 are still classified as missing, thousands of homes were lost or severely damaged and nearly a million people lost power.
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On the first anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in American history, Slidell came together at a vigil to remember what it has been through and celebrate how far it has come.
“It’s tough. It’s been really emotional,” said 26-year resident Karen O’Connell, 52, her eyes filling with tears. “It brings so much back. I need this closure. It’s kind of like the end of the funeral.”
Mayor Ben O. Morris touted Slidell’s progress in the year since the hurricane rather than dwelling on what it lost.
“Tonight, we come to celebrate the rebirth of our city, not dig up Katrina’s old bones,” he told the small crowd in the sweltering heat. “We have come back faster and farther than any other.”
Though south Slidell was overcome by the tsunami-like wave that came from the storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain and was flooded for a couple of days, the waters receded fairly quickly and many of the town’s officials set to work rebuilding as soon as power was restored a few weeks later.
Many residents had four to six feet of muddy water in their homes, most of which had to be gutted and totally renovated from the inside. A good number of locals are still in the process of renovating and continue to inhabit the trailers provided to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), often in their front yards. Others have recently been able to move out of the trailers and back into their houses.
Businesses are also reopening little by little and new ones are moving in, though some have shut their doors for good. Schools are operating with more normalcy again too. The school year started Aug. 14 with the heavily damaged Salmen High and Brock Elementary schools both at
temporary modular campuses and student numbers up from what they were shortly after the hurricane.
Meanwhile, the gradual process of cleaning up the city goes on.
Sen. David Vitter praised Slidell for its progress.
“Congratulations,” he said. “We all look forward with great hope and confidence to an even greater Slidell.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu, who grew up in Slidell, assured people that their town hasn’t been overlooked, even though many here have felt that their story hasn’t been told and they’ve been overshadowed by New Orleans.
“You have not been forgotten,” she said.
Some have taken the loss of their homes and properties less hard than others who have struggled to come to terms with it.
“As long as my family was safe, that’s all I’m thankful for,” said Curry Clement, 46, who owns the popular Beignet Station café in the town’s historic train station overlooking the park.
Clement lost his house and some cars in the flood, but he doesn’t complain about it. He was adequately insured and is in a new home in Picayune, Miss., now.
“It’s all material things and can be replaced,” he said. “I could live anywhere.”
Clement didn’t attend the vigil. The one small thing he did do to commemorate the day was to call his brother and thank him for getting their family to move back to the area after the storm.
Micki and Bill Davis sat in lawn chairs at the Katrina anniversary event, looking relaxed and happy. Though their home was flooded with three feet of water, they were able to move back in January and are almost finished with their renovations.
“We feel things in Slidell are going really well,” said Micki Davis, 62.
What’s harder for her to see is places like the 9th Ward in New Orleans, which was right behind the levees that broke and was so badly hit that whole neighborhoods are empty, and St. Bernard Parish, much of which was washed away by Katrina.
“It’s very sad and really depressing when you go there,” she said.
Many town residents decided not to go to the anniversary event in Heritage Park because it was too painful for them. And numerous people in the neighborhood were jittery in the days leading up to the 29th at the thought of another Katrina.
News earlier in the week that Tropical Storm Ernesto had been upgraded to a hurricane and was heading toward the Gulf Coast caused much worry in the community.
Some had already booked hotel rooms in the event of an evacuation. Others panicked about the prospect of reliving last year’s nightmare.
Fortunately, the weather system turned away from this area, weakening significantly.
At the vigil, one attendee who lived in Slidell from 2000 to 2002 has just returned to become the interim minister at First Presbyterian Church. He is thrilled to be back.
“I feel like I went to heaven,” said Stephen K. Kim. “I have so many good friends in this area. [The anniversary] has been somber and very reflective. It’s a lot for us to think about. But after all the water, we have the chance to start again.”